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The home of Super Bowl 2017 is also a haven for refugees

Houston welcomes more refugees than any other city in the United States, and this week, all eyes are on it for reasons besides football.

Houston Scenics Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

HOUSTON — Fatemah made tea in the two-bedroom home that she, her husband Sadegh, and their three children share. They’ve lived here since coming to Texas from Iran, by way of Turkey, as refugees in December of 2016. The family’s apartment complex is located amid a sea of strip malls and run-down homes off of one of the many highways that surround Houston like a belt. Rusting trucks sat outside the houses surrounding the complex’s gates as palm trees cast shadows over the yards.

Sadegh held his youngest child, a 1-year-old who fussed a bit, while her brother, age 5, sat perched on the arm of his father’s chair. The family’s case advisor at the Refugee Services of Texas, Nisar Ahmad Momand, sat on a new, oversized couch, one of the few pieces of furniture in the family’s sparsely furnished place. Momand, who came to Houston on a Special Immigrant Visa four years ago after serving with the U.S. Armed Services in Afghanistan, translated for Sadegh and Fatemah as they talked about their new life in America.

“When we were coming to the United States on the airplane from Turkey, we were hopeless,” Sadegh said. “We were thinking that, here we are, going to a country where we don’t know anyone, where we don’t have any friends, where there’s a language problem. But we came to airport and there were a lot of people there to welcome us, thank god.”

Sadegh, Fatemah, and their family arrived in Houston on Dec. 2, 2016, after a three-year, intensive vetting process while they lived in Turkey. They’d fled their home country of Iran in 2013, since Fatemah is Christian and Sadegh is Muslim, and they felt that their inter-faith marriage wasn't widely accepted by government officials. The family made it just under the wire — on Jan. 27, Trump banned entry to the U.S. for Muslims from seven countries, including Iran. Fatemah and the children, who are being raised Christian, ostensibly could’ve come here still. But Sadegh would’ve had to stay behind.

Houston, which is only 50 percent white as of the 2010 census, welcomes the most refugees of any city in the country each year. When President Donald Trump’s executive order dropped haphazardly on Friday night last week, the effects rippled through the city like a shockwave. The national media’s lens focused on George Bush International Airport over the weekend as Muslims were detained, protesters filled the international arrivals terminal, and volunteer lawyers scrambled to help those caught in limbo.

All eyes were supposed to be on Houston for a different reason: Kickoff for Super Bowl LI will take place on Sunday, as the Patriots and the Falcons face off to see who will take home the Lombardi Trophy. But now, in the shadow of the biggest sporting event of the year, the international, diverse city is scrambling to figure out how to deal with a crisis it didn’t see coming.

A sign at a mosque in Houston that a neighboring church made.
Charlotte Wilder

Houston has integrated refugees into its community in large numbers since the 1970s, when 200,000 Vietnamese were resettled here after the Vietnam War. Since then, people fleeing horrendous conditions in their home countries have held this place up as a beacon of hope.

There are several reasons for Houston’s large refugee population, explained Sara Kaufmann, the area director for Refugee Services of Texas. She stood in her office on Tuesday of Super Bowl week as a webinar featuring bullet-points of immigration policy played on her computer in the background.

"We have, I think, 28 percent foreign-born citizens, so we have people from all over the world already,” she said. “So Houston's really comfortable with people from different religions, different parts of the world. It's very welcoming."

Houston also has a robust economy that offers a diverse array of opportunities for employment once refugees get to Texas. The cost of living is fairly low — Forbes ranked it as the best city for stretching a paycheck — and most refugees have to work service jobs when they first arrive and get back on their feet. In fact, having the Super Bowl in Houston has been great for creating jobs; contracted companies have been able to partner with resettlement organizations here to employ refugees. Kaufmann said dozens and dozens of them are working the Super Bowl this week, helping to set up, cater, and clean up after events.

Many refugees are also helping with Super Bowl security, Kaufmann said. People who worked as interpreters or translators (like Momand) have been able come to the U.S. on Special Immigrant Visas, and they often go into law enforcement or the U.S. military once they’ve become fully naturalized citizens. In fact, one of the first people detained at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York last weekend was an Iraqi translator who helped American troops overseas.

One of the people helping refugees secure jobs during Super Bowl week is a man named Mohamed, an employment case worker in Kaufmann’s office. He’s thrilled that the city is hosting the biggest sporting event of the year, and thinks Houston will provide an important backdrop to the current political unrest in the country on a national stage.

“This city is the best city for refugees in the United States,” he said. “That gives us a lot of pride. I enjoy my work, seeing people come resettle, leave their country, and have a second chance. These people are running away from fear. They don’t want to create fear for other people. We shouldn’t be making them out to be evil. The evil people are the ones who chase them away.”

Like his co-worker Momand, Mohamed, 29, was also once a refugee — he came to the United States in 1999 as a boy fleeing the droughts in Somalia that followed years of civil war. In the streets, Mohamed said he saw children who looked like skeletons with “enormous heads” on their starved bodies. He and his family made it to a refugee camp run by the United Nations, and were eventually told they’d be sent to the United States.

They landed at JFK on a cold day in September, which Mohamed described as “arriving on a different planet.” From New York, he and his family were transferred to Lansing, Mich., where he grew up. He went on to Michigan State, where he majored in human geography before moving to Houston.

Last December, Mohamed went back to Somalia and married his childhood sweetheart, whom he’d gotten back in touch with and fallen in love with over social media.

While he’s usually the one helping refugees navigate the complex immigration system, now Mohamed has found himself at the mercy of it. His wife, who’s still in Somalia, was supposed to join him in Houston soon. But because of Trump’s executive order, the two have no idea what will happen.

"The problem is, fear comes from the unknown,” Mohamed said. “And maybe if we just had a little bit more education and awareness, we wouldn’t have that much fear. This is the land of the brave, not the land of the fearful. So hopefully things will work out."

Another sign outside a Houston mosque.
Charlotte Wilder

Mana Yagani is worried, too. She’s an immigration lawyer in Houston who, as of Monday morning, hadn’t slept in 48 hours as she tried to help clients through the new legal maze that Trump and his administration has created.

“I can’t even tell you what it’s been like,” Yagani said. “My husband, last night, he was like, ‘Do people still care about the Super Bowl?’ Because it’s just such a crisis happening right now. It’s just such a shock.”

Yagani isn’t the only one who’s been working around the clock to deal with the ramifications of Trump’s executive order. Protesters took to the streets by the NFL live fan experience on Sunday in solidarity with Muslims, and Kaufmann said that Refugee Services of Texas and other organizations have seen an influx of volunteers and donations. A training on Tuesday morning that was supposed to be for 20 volunteers had swelled to 100 after the weekend’s events.

But refugee organizations still need donations. These programs are funded according to how many families they bring in, and if entry is barred, the money dries up.

Some Muslim groups in the area are hoping the Super Bowl will showcase just how important it is that Houston — and the nation — show solidarity for these refugee and Muslim communities. M.J. Kahn, the president of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, said his organization is planning a prayer vigil on Wednesday night, as well as Saturday night before the game, for anyone dealing with the uncertainty, anxieties, and new pressures that this executive order has created.

But the Super Bowl also, more simply, brings some joy to Houston. Back in Fatemah and Sadegh’s apartment, Sadegh explained how his children have been watching the festivities during the week. Keeping the television on helps the family learn English. Their 9-year-old (who was at school that day) and 5-year-old Arash have been watching football since the family came to the States. The kids are excited for Sunday.

“We never expected we’d receive this kind of welcome or happiness here in Houston,” Sadegh said. “This is something amazing for us, a new dream for us. We never expected these things.”

As Sadegh talked, Fatemah put a pacifier in the baby’s mouth. Arash brought over a tray of desserts that he held by its very edge and managed to land on the table before the cookies could spill all over the floor. The boy looked very proud of himself as his father told Momand not to go back to Afghanistan, where the translator had planned to visit family and friends.

“It’s not one of the banned countries, though,” Momand said.

“It doesn’t matter,” Sadegh said. “It’s better to stay here in Houston. Just to be safe.”

Some last names have not been used to protect individuals mentioned in this story.